“Bitches”, “sluts” and roller derby

Posted on October 27, 2014 by

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Her hair is in child-like pigtails, her tattoos glare through strategically placed holes in fishnet stockings, and a short skirt reveals the pink panties that match the tight T-shirt altered to provide the most potent view of breast cleavage. The image portrays the outlandish, extravagant conventions of sexuality associated with the tawdriness of “pin-up girls.” And yet the salience of knee pads, shin pads, elbow pads, and helmets resist simple assessments of sexualized femininity, as do facial scowls and the brutish postures through which she powers her way around the skating rink.

The quote above is from Nancy Finlay’s academic article entitled Skating Femininity: Gender Maneuvering in Women’s Roller Derby. It was published four years ago. In it she explains what “pariah” femininities are. They are types of behaviour patterns that “are contaminating to gender relations between men and women when they are embodied by women. For example, a woman exhibiting defiance, physical violence, or authority in a patriarchy is destabilizing for male dominance unless the exhibit can be stigmatized and feminized. Once feminized, people perceive the masculine content as another type of femininity.” She provides the example of a woman who exhibits too much authority being labelled a “bitch” or a woman who is sexually noncompliant as a “slut”.

Finlay claims that women are often instrumental in defining/loathing pariah femininities (that is, it is women who attack and socially control other women) but that derby turns that on its head. I wonder what people think of this claim.

If I think back to when I started in an all-female environment in 2011, I feel like this was true. There was no stigma or exclusion of women who were lesbian, swore profusely, were aggressive or liked sex. I felt accepted and loved by my teammates. However, there were constraints in place. Time spent in the league seemed quite important in terms of opportunities and decision making. For example, newer members were excluded from training opportunities with visiting coaches.

Erica, Michelle and I were regularly penalised for refusing to conform and be obedient, especially in terms of activities we did in our free time. We were threatened with receiving a formal warning for meeting Bonnie D Stroir. The league as a whole was told they weren’t allowed to enter a certain training facility after it became known that we trained there at 9am on Saturday mornings. The logic with that one was that the venue “belonged” to another league who trained there certain nights of the week. This rule became difficult to enforce when parents asked if they could still attend in order to take their kids to junior derby training. I received a 45 minute lecture from a senior member of my own league for being immoral when I ran a learn-to-skate class for women who wanted to play roller derby. This was followed up with a phone call from another league to warn me against doing it for my own good (legal risks).

Overall, my impression in those earlier days was that women could break all the gender stereotypes and feel free socially as long as they accepted that roller derby “belonged” to the few women who had founded each league and didn’t try to shape the sport or engage in it in new ways.

Now it’s 2014 and I’m in a mixed-gender league. Does the safety from pariah feminities exist for me currently? Compared to my life outside of derby – yes. Derby is still my safe space where I can exist in tiny shorts teamed with hairy underarms, where no one cares what genitalia their teammates prefer to bump bits with, where women are encouraged to be leaders. However, at a league value setting session a few months back I was shocked when a female member talked about the value of “dignity”. Her example was that our women shouldn’t wear fishnet stockings as we should have more class than that. I wasn’t the only one distubred by this comment. However, the fact that she felt it was ok to voice such a conservative opinion made me sharply aware that times may be changing in the roller derby universe.

Recently, someone pointed out that he thought someone in our league has a crush on me and asked me what I had done about addressing it. I felt dumbfounded – I thought derby was the one environment where the whole “men are just victims of their base instincts and it’s up to women to put in place barriers to regulate their sexuality” didn’t apply. Both of these events indicate that the pariah femininity of “slut” is rearing its ugly head in the one environment I previously thought it was banished from.

I can’t work out if the mainstreaming of roller derby as a sport has contaminated it with mainstream patriarchal attitudes or whether it’s the fact that I am now in a coed environment. Maybe it’s a little of column A and a little of column B.

Perhaps this is what those women who guarded derby so jealously were afraid of. Perhaps they sensed that as more people were attracted to the sport that it would lose its unique, accepting environment. Different ways of doing things brought up fears that they didn’t have control, that derby was its own beast that would evolve according to those women/people who were involved with it.

What do you think? If you’ve been involved for years, have you detected a change over that time? If you’re in a coed league, do you think that has an impact on the culture?

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Posted in: LimboLand